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George CRUMB (b. 1929)
A Journey Beyond Time (American Songbook II) (2003) [36.58]
The Winds of Destiny (American Songbook IV) (2004) [45.29]
Barbara Ann Martin (soprano)
Orchestra 2001/James Freeman
rec. Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, November 2005 and October 2006
BRIDGE 9275A/B [36.58 + 45.29]
Experience Classicsonline

George Crumb has composed six works to date under the title “American Songbook”. They are essentially sets of folk-song arrangements. The two under review are “Afro-American spirituals” and “American Civil War songs, folk songs, and spirituals”. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the composer will know to be prepared for the unconventional.

Both works are sung by Barbara Ann Martin. Hers is a distinctive, dramatic soprano voice with a wide range. She has premiered several works by Crumb and presumably has his approval. Even so, not all the sounds she makes are as lovely as one might want. Her voice, as recorded here, has a tendency to spread uncomfortably under pressure. The booklet notes, however, quote a Chicago Tribune article which refers to her as “a worthy successor to the late Jan DeGaetani”, so not everyone hears her as I do. In any event she clearly understands and lives this music to the full.

She is accompanied by Orchestra 2001, which, in its configuration here, is a pianist and four percussion players. The piano is amplified and otherwise modified, and only newcomers to Crumb will be surprised at the list of instruments the percussionists are called upon to play. One of the songs, for instance, in addition to more conventional instruments, employs “a Kenyan shaker, Appalachian ‘bones’, Philippine ‘devil chasers’… African talking drum … rute (a bundle of sticks), along with Tibetan prayers stones, secco and muted piano.” The result is a sound-world unlike that of any other composer, immensely varied, exotic, and frequently working at the quieter end of the dynamic scale.

A Journey Beyond Time opens with a setting of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot which exactly fits the description above. The ear can just perceive traces of the “multiple canons” referred to in the accompanying notes. Joshua Fit de Battle ob Jerico follows. It’s a spectacular setting, unusually, for Crumb, rapid in tempo and with the volume turned up, especially at the moment that the very instrument appears which is said to have brought down those walls, the shofar. The intimate mourning of Steal Away is disturbed at times by the singer’s pronounced vibrato. The notes tell us, rather enigmatically, that the setting “… encodes Underground Railway instructions within an intimation of death.” Other settings include Oh, a-Rock-a My Soul, the first time I have heard any version of this since Lonnie Donegan sang it in the 1960s, and Sit Down, Sister, another genuinely rapid arrangement. Then follows Nobody Knows de Trouble I See and the work closes with an arrangement of Go Down, Moses. In general, the composer presents the songs without any further vocal adornment, wishing, in his own words “…to stay out of the way of those beautiful tunes.” Where he does intervene it is usually to add or take away beats, the resulting rhythmic disturbance designed to bring out the character of the song or the state of mind of its protagonist. Presuming that the accompaniments are meant to support – and perhaps to enhance – this important musical heritage, Crumb is successful, though the atmosphere he creates, often luminously beautiful and, usually, at one with the song, can seem undifferentiated from one song to another. And I wonder how much more there is to find in these arrangements once one has heard them three or four times. There are also a few places in questionable taste. Sit Down, Sister, for example, ends with a shout. This is undoubtedly meant to be humorous, and I even think I understand why, but it seems cheap and ineffective, as does speaking, with emphasis, the word “dead” in Go Down, Moses. And do the lines “Motherless children have a hard time” really appear in Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child?

If I’m not totally convinced, then, by Songbook II, I’m even less convinced, sadly, by The Winds of Destiny. As one would expect from the subject matter, this is a harsher affair overall. There is a real martial feel to When Johnny Comes Marching Home, though there is great bitterness and irony too. This is a successful setting, at least up to the point where the composer quotes from the slow movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, thereby losing me, and the singer’s sobs at the end are embarrassing. Go Tell it on the Mountain! is harsh and strident rather than joyful, and the repeated phrases at the end, presumably to suggest an exultant voice echoing from peak to peak, strike me as absurd. The opening of the first song is magical, mysterious and strikingly beautiful, featuring instruments such as the Aboriginal thunder stick, but what has it to do with Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory, and why is the singer placed in the distance? The end of the work, too, a setting of Shenandoah, is also extremely beautiful. Barbara Ann Martin is wonderfully poised here, but the accompaniment could serve for any of the other quiet, subdued songs in both books.

There is one original song in these two collections, in Songbook IV, entitled The Enchanted Valley. The words are by the composer’s daughter, Ann Crumb, and are very atmospheric, but no more than that. The musical illustration of dogs barking and lost souls again seems unsubtle and, amongst so much music whose purpose is difficult to grasp, ultimately irritating. Each collection has an instrumental interlude, beautiful in both cases. In the second book, which, like the first and the third, is meant to evoke a particular stage of daytime, the score is arranged in the form of the sun, a central, circular stave with other staves emerging around it like the sun’s rays. In the fourth book, which represents night, the score of this interlude is printed in white on a black background.

The quality of the recorded sound is remarkable. The percussion instruments and the amplified piano are rendered almost tangible. The vocal part is recorded very close, to the singer’s detriment, in one or two songs, and the listener will wonder why, even though it is clearly a conscious decision. The booklet notes, by Eric Bruskin, are detailed and well written, but some of his observations are difficult to swallow, and quite a lot of technical musical knowledge is required to understand much of it.

Crumb completists will want this and others already devoted to the composer may well get more out of it than I did. But newcomers are warned that this is not the place to start to make the composer’s acquaintance. Ancient Voices of Children, a set of songs to poems by Lorca, typical of its time – 1970 – and probably a masterpiece, would serve that purpose much better.

William Hedley



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